My feelings about “Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes’s fever dream of a drama about Washington, fluctuate as fast as crisis fixer Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) emotions toward President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). But I truly loved the moment on the show last week when former vice president Sally Langston (a delightful Kate Burton) popped back up on “Scandal.”
Sally quit the vice presidency after she murdered her husband, who she had discovered was gay, and after suffering a religious-inflected breakdown; given that “Scandal” also features a murderous Supreme Court justice, a spy agency that makes the real-life CIA looks like puppies and kittens and a first lady who tolerates her husband’s affair, Sally isn’t a particular standout. In “Put a Ring on It,” she’s reemerged as the anchor of a hugely successful conservative television show and is now threatening to reveal one of Olivia’s coverups for the sham that it is. The specifics of the coverup don’t matter much, but Sally’s explanation for why she loves her new job is a terrific and insightful explanation of why conservative media outlets, particularly Fox News, can be so entertaining and so effective:
“What is it that you want?” Olivia demands of Sally, trying to bribe her out of doing an interview with an offer to make her secretary of state. “Because this? This can’t be it.” But Sally is neither shamed nor deterred and explains to Olivia that her arrival on television doesn’t feel like a demotion. “You seem to think this is all some sort of act. A way station on the road back to Calvary. But this is Calvary. I have arrived,” Sally tells her longtime antagonist. “I have what I want. A television show that reaches nearly 4 million viewers a week. A bully pulpit on the airwaves. A place where my voice is finally being heard. Believe it or not, there are other ways to move this country in the right direction that do not involve the three square miles around the Washington Mall. Right there: that is the real seat of power. I’m exactly where I need to be.”
“Scandal” is a ridiculous show, but one part of its appeal is that its craziness often shows more insight into the state of American politics than marginally more sober offerings such as “House of Cards.” And Sally’s explanation of her role is right on the money: outlets such as Fox News, and figures such as Rush Limbaugh, are so effective because they consider themselves a part of the political apparatus. Even if Bill O’Reilly isn’t coordinating strategy with members of Congress or the Republican National Committee, he considers it his job to shift the debate, rather than to comment on it or to stay above the fray.
In this context, Fox News’s “Fair and Balanced” slogan is a bit of genius. It gives Fox’s opponents something to drive themselves nuts over, since the network is (with a few exceptions, such as Shepard Smith’s straight news reporting) so manifestly uninterested in adhering to its own stated mission. But while liberals fight to preserve the idea that news should be fair and balanced, Fox News and publications built on its model get on with their real work of being wildly entertaining and pushing the ideas and narratives its anchors and writers think are important.
In last week’s “Scandal,” Olivia manages to convince Sally to back down from reporting one particular story with a nifty little bit of blackmail. But the show would be smart to keep Sally around as an antagonist, particularly if it’s going to focus on the increasing political split between Fitz and his wife, Mellie (Bellamy Young), who is running for senator of Virginia as a more moderate Republican than her husband. “Scandal” could use an opponent Olivia can’t handle. And liberals who love to angst about Fox News’s disregard for the rules of conventional journalism could benefit from a shot of Sally’s straight talk.